“Think fast!” — American saying, usually accompanied by something thrown at the recipient
Did you know that smart people actually think faster than “regular” people do? That’s the conclusion of a 2009 twin study at UCLA that scanned specific parts of the brain using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). The smarter the person, the faster the mental speed.
For me, this begs the question: does being smart make you think faster, or does thinking faster make you smarter? The jury’s still out on that, but I suspect a bit of both. Intelligence does run in families, but plenty of people without profound mental gifts have proven they can learn to think faster. Everyone wants to think faster, right? We may not end up rivaling Hawking or Einstein in terms of sheer brainpower, but we can certainly boost our baseline thinking speed.
Rising to the Challenge
We humans have a specialty—the same sense that birds fly or spiders weave webs—our ability to adapt and learn. And as with almost anything, you can hack your brainpower and speed the flow of information. How? Think fast!
1. Focus. You probably expected this one. By now, you probably realize you can be more productive when you focus tightly on one issue to the exclusion of everything else. You can’t keep it up indefinitely, but for an hour or so at a time, you can certainly home in like a laser on what matters most. When you fall into a focus trance, you boost your thinking speed. I use a regular kitchen timer and set it for 45-minute focus sessions, which really helps me get “in the zone.”
2. Take acting classes. I’ll bet you didn’t expect this one. But acting classes really do help you maintain your mental footing. I learned to think faster on my feet through improv exercises. Improv classes have helped my speaking ability in many ways: projecting confidence, maintaining poise when faced with a difficult audience member, and responding more quickly to audience questions. I’ve encouraged all three of my children to take drama classes and get used to performing in front of groups of people. Being fast on your feet will be especially helpful during challenging situations, like a sales presentation where the client is asking tough questions. If nothing else, the classes will teach you how to respond to questions in ways that give you more time to answer.
3. Exercise your memory. Although your brain isn’t a muscle, giving it a workout will help it develop it. Your brain cells will forge new connections between each other, increasing speed of access to both information and reasoning ability. You’ll find plenty of websites online to help you stretch your mental muscles, and of course, there are logic puzzles galore that will keep your neurons active. New research suggests that crossword puzzles increase language fluency, but they don’t develop your mind. If you like crosswords, try the tough British-style puzzles where you have to figure out the clues before you can even guess the words.
4. Eat dark chocolate. No kidding! Dark chocolate contains not just flavinoids and antioxidants, which provide various health benefits, it also stimulates your brain’s natural production of dopamine, which has been shown to increase learning speed and memory. Now, I’m not talking about devouring a handful of Hershey’s Kisses; they contain far too much sugar and milk. Try one of those bittersweet 70%+ chocolate bars instead. They may be pricey, but they’re worth it. Meanwhile, eating well in general will help you feel better, making it easier to think; and eating plenty of fish and fresh produce in particular will also improve brain function.
5. Learn something new…and do it repeatedly. When you learn a new task, your brain rewires itself, often with interesting consequences. Not only do you learn more, but you may also develop shortcuts between neurons containing different information. When you repeat the task, it helps burn those new pathways into your neural network. If necessary, start small and work your way up. Interestingly, dancing seems to help Alzheimer’s patients; maybe it can help you think faster while giving a business presentation as well (but not at the same time).
6. Learn a new language. This exposes you to a new way of thinking. Some linguistics and neurologists believe our native languages establish our thought patterns for life. If that’s so, then a new language—especially one radically different from your own—can really shake things up.
The Human Touch
There’s one challenge with the tips I’ve outlined above: they take a lot of time and effort. Many people don’t want to be bothered, because time’s already in such short supply. But since even the slightest increase in mental acuity will serve you well, so at the very least, develop and maintain plenty of meaningful relationships in your life.
Spending time with family and friends tends to improve your mood and clear clogged mental pathways. Talking things out with others willing to listen can help you frame your thoughts and process data, as extroverts have always known. It can also help you relax—and that’s when your subconscious mind will take over, grind through your problems, and present solutions when you least expect them.
© 2014 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, is America’s Premier Expert in Productivity™. For over 20 years, Laura has worked with business leaders to execute more efficiently, boost performance, and accelerate results in the workplace. Her company, The Productivity Pro, Inc., provides productivity workshops around the globe to help attendees achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time®. Laura is the bestselling author of six books, with over 20 foreign editions, published by Random House, Wiley, and Berrett-Koehler, including her newest work, Execution IS the Strategy (March 2014). Widely regarded as one of the leading experts in the field of performance and workplace issues, Laura has been featured on the CBS Early Show, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. Connect via her website, Facebook, or Twitter.